THE WRECK OF THE MALAKOFF

PART 1 - THE HISTORY and THE TRAGIC SINKING OF THE MALAKOFF

 


General view of building berths East Yard, Newcastle upon Tyne
THE NORTHUMBERLAND SHIPBUILDING COMPANY LTD, was formed in 1898 at the Howden yard, Newcastle Upon Tyne. Shortly afterwards Managing Director, Rowland Hodge, undertook to build a standardized steamship of a design to suit the requirements of the majority of ship owners. This was a spar deck steamer of 372 feet (113.38m) overall length, by 48 feet (14.63m) in width and with a molded depth of 30.8 feet (9.38m). It was to carry 7300 tons deadweight (7417 Metric tones) and be capable of 10 knots. There was to be spacious accommodation on the bridge deck, water ballast within the cellular double bottom and an aft peak tank. Loading and discharging gear was to be given special attention, with the winches and derricks being steam driven. There was to be considerable design flexibility beyond the hull design. While most had a central engine room, the S.S. Mercedes had the engine room and wheelhouse to the stern. This ship was built for the British Admiralty for the purpose of carrying coal from New Zealand to the China fleet.
In 1906, "The Shipbuilder" reported that the yard had produced the largest number of steamers ever built off one model; 46 ships in total. The Malakoff was one of these ships.
The MALAKOFF was originally named the Franconia. She was first registered in April 1903, to the Franconia Steam Ship Company of Trieste under an Austrian-Hungarian flag.
Capable of up to 10 knots, she was powered by a single triple expansion steam engine of 3 cylinders, delivering 357 Nominal Horse Power (2300 IHP), which was built by the North East Marine Engine Company Ltd, also of Newcastle. Her dimensions were slightly different to the original design, these being of 113.38 metres in length (109.72m BP), 15.14 metres breadth and 8.56 metres molded depth, with a gross tonnage of 4637, net tonnage of 3019 and a deadweight of 7417 tonnes. Her design included water ballast of 822 tonnes within a cellular double bottom, an aft peak tank of 63 tonnes and a complete set of steam driven winches and derricks.

The S.S. Queen Cristina, is an example of the Company's standard 7300 ton steamer. This ship is the identical sister ship to the Malakoff, except for one small detail; that the bridge deck on the Malakoff was 96 feet in length (29m) whereas the Queen Cristina pictured here during her sea trials in the year 1900, had a bridge deck of 76 feet (23m), all other dimensions are identical.

The cargo ship USS Keresaspa was acquired by the US Navy and commissioned on the 31 October 1918, under the command of Lt. Comdr. James J. Boyce. Assigned to the Veterinary Corps Hospital No. 18 (NOTS).
Sometime in December 1928 (exact date still under investigation) the Malakoff set sail from Antwerp in Belgium, on what was to be her last trip. Bound for Madagascar initially and then onward to Reunion island in the south western Indian Ocean, she was carrying a mixed cargo consisting of bags of cement, pig iron, ceramic tiles, rolls of copper wire, sewing machines, china dinner services and the ship's owner's personal sailing yacht on deck.
She had a crew of 35, plus two passengers; Mrs Quemper, the Captain's wife and Mrs Marette, the Chief Engineer's wife.
Now, at this point there is a mystery; from information gathered to date, it is still unknown why the Malakoff was sailing northwards towards Menorca. If her planned route was to sail from Antwerp to Madagascar, then the Malakoff would have sailed through the straits of Gibraltar and then along the North African coast, directly towards the Suez Canal, and, in this case possibly stopping in Gibraltar and later in Suez, which were major coal loading ports.
So why was she sailing north towards Menorca into increasingly bad weather; was she to make a last stop in France, perhaps Marseille, to load or unload some cargo.

The S.S. Mercedes had the engine room and wheelhouse to the stern. This ship was built for the British Admiralty for the purpose of carrying coal from New Zealand to the China fleet.
.
In 1917, she appears to have been acquired by the Kerr Navigation Corporation of New York, USA and renamed the USS Keresaspa. Shortly afterwards the cargo ship was acquired by the US Navy and commissioned on the 31 October 1918, under the command of Lt. Comdr. James J. Boyce.
Assigned to the Veterinary Corps Hospital No. 18 (NOTS), USS Keresaspa departed New York on Thursday November 28 1918, with a cargo of 400 horses and mules, together with miscellaneous cargo, bound for France. During the passage, severe gales were encountered resulting in the death of 53 animals and substantial damage being made to the ship. Finally she discharged her cargo at La Pallice, France, and returned to Baltimore on the 20 January 1919. Following repairs the USS Keresaspa was decommissioned on the 11 February 1919 and returned to her owners.
At this point there seems to be a difference as to who owned the ship. According to the Lloyd's Register of Shipping in London she was owned by the American Shipping and Commercial Navigation Corporation (United American Lines Inc.) of New York, as from 1917, however according to the Hungarian Ship Register, this company did not aquire her until 1921.
Later in 1921, she was then sold to the Oceana Sea Navigation Company Ltd of Budapest, Hungary and renamed the Pannonia.

In 1926, changing owners yet again and for the last time, she was now the property of the Societe Auxiliaire des Chargeurs Francais, of 31 Rue Mogador, Paris 9eme and was renamed the Malakoff with her port of registry becoming Rouen in northern France.
At this point the ship underwent certain modernization work resulting in a slight increase in her original weights.
For the next few years she appears to have been assigned to carrying cargo to and from the distant French Colonies; from Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, to French Polynesia in the south Pacific, navigating all the world's oceans without incident.


The Pannonia, owned by the Oceana Sea Navigation Company Ltd of Budapest, Hungary, 1921 to 1926.
From research so far, time and time again the only information to come to light, is that she sank off Menorca whilst on a passage from Antwerp to Madagascar; some 140 miles off course.
CIUDADELA, 11.45 AM, JANUARY 2nd 1929
As the passengers disembarked the Steamship Monte Toro, their bitter disappointment showed on their faces. They had boarded the ferry bound for Palma de Mallorca, together with many excited young children, where they were to celebrate with family and friends, the fiesta of 'Los Reyes' on January the 6th, this the most important day for children all over Spain.
Holding onto their hats and tugging at umbrellas, as the icy cold gusts of wind drove the rain down in great swirling sheets, almost horizontally, the men and women gathered in small separate groups as they hurried towards the ferry terminal, the chatter becoming ever louder as their frustration turned to anger.
Soon the quayside would be empty, as yet another tremendously heavy hail shower lashed across the harbour as thunder crashed overhead; weather conditions for which the ferry crossing had inevitably been ordered not to sail, by the 'Comandante de la Marina'
The official weather report by the newspaper 'Voz de Menorca' for that day was 'strong northwesterly gale, with heavy hail showers leaving a cover on the ground, maximum temperature 9º celcius. On that same day Cannes weather station in southern France, reported the storm as being the worse in living memory.

CABO DARTUCH LIGHTHOUSE, 22.15 pm
Situated at the extreme tip of the south western corner of the island, only a hundred metres or so from the waters edge, this lighthouse is possibly the most exposed of all the lighthouses on Menorca.
As the lighthouse keepers, Gabriel Pons and Juan Clar began an extra precautionary check of the correct functioning of the lighting and gas system that powered it, they need not have been reminded of this factor; it was an atrocious night, with the north westerly driven waves thundering up across the rocks, right to the edge of the building itself. Up at the top of the lighthouse tower, it was normal procedure to scan the horizon with the old rudimentary binoculars, in order to observe anything unusual, but on this night there was no question of going outside onto the observation terrace; the wind was howling and whining with an extraordinary intensity, driving sheets of rain and sea spray spiraling around the tower.
The two men returned to the ground floor living quarters, uncertain that all was well, to begin the night shifts.

7Km EAST SOUTHEAST OF CABO DARTUCH LIGHTHOUSE 22.25 pm
The hours had seemed like days for the very tired crew on watch aboard the cargo steamer Malakoff, as the weather conditions had hour after hour, gradually deteriorated. The large ship rolled and creaked in the heavy seas, frequently shuddering as huge swells slammed into and over her bow. As the Helmsman made constant corrections to the course against the waves and currents, he had ordered the engineers to reduce speed to ease the stress on the ship's structures. The two men now in the wheelhouse, desperately tried to scan the darkness for any glimpse of the Cabo Dartuch lighthouse, to which they should soon pass some 2 or 3 kilometres to the west. It was an impossible task, as under the circumstances all that could be seen were clouds of white spume, driving up from over the bow and across the foredeck.

ONE OF MENORCA'S THREE WORSE SHIPPING ACCIDENTS.

Unknown to the crew, on that foul wintry night, the ship had steadily drifted off her intended course.
At 22.35 on January 2nd 1929, the Malakoff slammed head on into a rock known as the 'Escull d'es Governador', only a few metres west of Cala Tale beach and some 6.5 Km east of Cabo Dartuch lighthouse, tearing her bow wide open.
The immense shock had thrown the two men on watch from one end of the wheelhouse to the other.
As they collected themselves together, badly bruised, Captain Quemper who had also been thrown out of bed, came up to the wheelhouse demanding to know what had happened. Believing that they had hit another ship he immediately ordered the ship into reverse, meanwhile, two seamen had been sent to inspect the bow. Horrified at the damage and amount of water flooding into the forward hold, they ran back to report to the Captain.
Realizing that the ship was lost, Captain Quemper gave the order to release two lifeboats and abandon ship.
It is believed that a total of 29 persons had managed to climb aboard the two lifeboats; 23 crewmembers plus Mrs Quemper and Mrs Marette aboard one boat and 4 crewmembers in the other, this including the 2nd Engineer, the two Firemen and a Madagascan seaman named Manqua.

The Malakoff slammed head on into this rock, known as the 'Escull d'es Governador', only a few metres west of Cala Tale beach and some 6.5 Km east of Cabo Dartuch lighthouse, tearing her bow wide open.
Meanwhile, the Captain and Chief Engineer had remained on board the Malakoff, whilst six other crew, who had been attempting to release the sailing yacht that was on deck, had to jump into the sea and swim for their lives, as they suddenly realized how quickly the ship was sinking.
Moments later, only 7 minutes after the impact, the Malakoff disappeared into the turbulent black sea creating thunderous noises and great plumes of spray as the boilers came into contact with the icy cold waters.
Twenty seven persons lost their lives instantly, this including the Captain and the Chief Engineer who were still aboard the ship and 23 crewmembers together with the two women who were on one of the lifeboats, this lifeboat apparently having been sucked underwater by the ensuing whirlpool.
Some distance away, with their lifeboat being far enough away not to be taken down by the whirlpool, the 2nd Engineer, the two Firemen and Manqua, had however been thrown into the sea by a freak wave, perhaps caused by the sinking.
Miraculously they were to survive this, as after ten or so terrifying minutes in the mountainous seas, the four men came across the sailing yacht that somehow had remained afloat, into which, exhausted, they managed to climb aboard.
Now they were at the mercy of the winds and the currents, since they had no way of navigating; this yacht which had been partially dismantled for the journey was in effect only a hull. After some days, Manqua who had become very weak, lost consciousness and was washed overboard by another freak wave. The remaining three, were finally picked up near to the Isla del Aire by the 3200 tonne passenger steamer Ville de Paris, owned by the same company. They had spent 6 days and nights at sea and were close to death.
Meanwhile, the other six men including the First Officer Mr Felix Priquer, had swam against all odds for over an hour before encountering an upturned lifeboat, which to their horror had a number of bodies beneath it. Freezing cold and hardly conscious they clung to its keel until two in the morning, when they came across the other lifeboat. This one was full of water, however it as upright and by incredible luck the oars were still in place.
Almost dying of exposure, the six men now painfully took turns at rowing the brilliant flashes of the lighthouse.

It is interesting to note that during the research into this story, a conversation with Gabriel Pons of Ciudadela, the lighthouse keeper's son, who remembered seeing the lifeboats even though he was only 13 years of age at the time, revealed that they were of a very advanced design in that they contained air chambers in order to make them unsinkable.
However, it seemed that the loss of life may have occurred as a result of the lifeboat having not been untied from the Malakoff, rather than being sucked down by a whirlpool. They had found a shredded towline which had seemingly snapped under great pressure, as if the lifeboat had been dragged down by the sinking ship.

It was around five in the morning when the lighthouse keepers Gabriel Pons and Juan Clar thought they had heard shouting, but, on looking around they saw nothing. Half an hour later, after hearing more shouting, they went outside to take a closer look and to their great surprise they found the lifeboat with its poor occupants, buffeting around in the small bay just below the east side of the lighthouse. Immediately they fetched a rope, and after serious difficulties due to the large swells, they managed to bring the men up to safety.


The small bay just below the east side of the lighthouse, from where the six men were rescued by the lighthouse keepers.

Gabriel Pons, is the son of the former lighthouse keeper of the same name. Although he was only 13 years old at the time of the tragedy, he remembers the event very well.
He is pictured here outside his home in Ciudadela, with his wife Trini and their three great grandchildren.

Having no telephones in those days, Juan Clar set out for Ciudadela to report the accident to the 'Comandancia de la Marina' and to Jose Mir, the French Consular agent. There were no roads to the lighthouse making this a difficult trip. First Juan Clar had to walk more than a kilometre through muddy fields to the nearest farmhouse; Son Olivar, from where, together with the farmer, he would continue to Ciudadela along very rough tracks by horse and cart.
Once the alarm had been raised, the 'Ayudante de la Marina', the Consular agent and many volunteers proceeded with great haste to the lighthouse, together with dry cloths, blankets and medicines. The survivors were later transferred to the Son Olivar farmhouse, where they would recover enough before being repatriated on the 6th of January.
Some days later, on arrival in Marseille, the second Engineer who had been one of the survivors to have been rescued close to the Isla del Aire, mentioned that the cause of the accident was due to the Cabo Dartuch lighthouse being unlit that night. The national press was quick to jump on this story and after sending telegraphs to Barcelona and Madrid, the terrible lie was published all across France and Spain, together with the 'Voz de Menorca' of Ciudadela. Upon reading this, the lighthouse keepers were devastated; it was totally untrue, how could the crew of the Malakoff make such an accusation.
On the 15th of January, Gabriel Pons and Juan Clar published an article in the 'Voz de Menorca' vehemently denying such accusations, stating that the lighthouse had been functioning correctly and that due to the terrible weather conditions on that night, extra checks had been made. They added to this, the fact that the six survivors could testify to this, as they had found their way to their salvation by the light of the Dartuch lighthouse.

Some days later, the French Information Agency ' Fabra & Havas' sent a telegraph to 'All stations'; It read: The Agency regrets that it has previously published false information with regard to the sinking of the Malakoff. The accident occurred due to a navigational error and not as previously stated, due to the Cabo Dartuch lighthouse of Menorca being non functional. The keepers of said lighthouse acted with the greatest of bravery during the rescue operation, and are to be highly honoured.

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